It is not uncommon, in my experience, for a new student to declare "why were we not taught any of this!?" after doing some in depth study. Like many American Jews, and despite the sincere efforts of the educators, I was left with a confused, incomplete and vaguely lame feeling about my Judaism. I was quite convinced that it held precious little that I could benefit from and if I wanted "real" spirituality, the disciplines of the East were a better bet. All it took to shatter my ossified collection of misconceptions was rudimentary exposure to some basic, authentic, classical Jewish texts. It was there that I discovered Judaism is infused to its core with mysticism, that it possesses works of philosophy that rival anything that has ever been produced, and that it has a profound and moving code of ethics that touches on virtually every aspect of the human condition.
Far too many Jews reject their own legacy due to a misplaced antagonism born of ignorance. This is not their fault but rather the fruits of an epically failed pedagogic system and a general collapse of Jewish religiosity in the new world, which itself was caused by a dozen or so sociological factors.
The irony is that "modern" Jews close off worlds to themselves -- worlds built on principles of openness, inquiry and spiritual freedom -- on the misplaced assumption that what they are ignoring is closed and stultifying. This failure to explore is willful blindness masquerading as open-mindedness. It is much more sensible -- reasonable -- to reject something after learning what it really is. Inspired by Professor Harold Bloom's stand for Western literature, I would like to share what I (subjectively) consider to be the bedrock of Judaic knowledge for the modern mind. Those interested may read, learn and draw their own conclusions.
All of Judaism is built off dual written and oral components. The Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings (Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) comprise the written. The Oral was originally meant to be just that -- oral only. During the Roman occupation and subsequent exile, this body of knowledge was committed to writing as an emergency measure and was formalized into what is now known as the Talmud (authoritative case law, ethics, mysticism and ritual practice), the Midrashim (homiletical stories) and the Kabbalah. While it would be ideal to be able to learn through all of this material in the original, sadly, multiple skills and languages are required to just crack one of the Talmud's 5,700 pages or the 24 volumes of the Zohar.
Fortunately, several fine English translations of these works now exist and as such have opened a gate that has been locked for several generations. It should be noted that works such as the Talmud and the Zohar are quite advanced and intended for the seasoned scholar. Nonetheless, with some basic instruction, a great deal can be gleaned from them -- even by the beginner. With the foregoing in mind, what follows is the list of what I consider to be the most essential works (available in English) to engender or enhance Jewish literacy for the present generation:
The Chumash (the Five Books of Moses)
The Tanach (Torah, Prophets, Writings)
Jewish Identity/Validity of the Torah
I believe that the average new reader will be pleasantly pleased to discover that far from being the antiquated musings of some Bronze Age shepherds, these works represent timeless and universal principles -- ideas that have changed the world and are part and parcel of much of what we now regard as right and good in the world. They touch on every facet of the human experience -- from psychology to community building, property rights to marital harmony, agriculture to meditation.
This list is literally a drop in the bucket. It has had an astounding shelf life, and for good reason.
As one of our students once put it "so many of my ancestors were willing to die to preserve all of this. Shouldn't I at least learn it?"
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